Leonid Nikitinsky: Agent Themis – the secret biography of the future head of the Russian Supreme Court [Novaya gazeta]

2 April 2024

by Leonid Nikitinsky

Source: Novaya gazeta

The approval by the Higher Judges’ Qualifications Board (HJQB) of Supreme Court deputy chief justice Irina Podnosova’s nomination for the position of chief justice is no April Fool’s joke. It’s almost synonymous with her being appointed to the post. Podnosova’s nomination still needs to be approved by the President’s personnel commission, after which the president will present it to the Federation Council. But at this point that’s a formality: the HJQB wouldn’t have made a decision at this level if it hadn’t been agreed upon ahead of time.

Very little is known about the future chief justice, apart from official information on her professional background, and the fact that Podnosova studied in the same program at the same time as Vladimir Putin.

After completing this law program at Leningrad University in 1975, Irina Leonidovna, originally from Pskov with a different surname, served for three years on assignment in the office of the executive committee of the Leningrad Regional Council, and then went to Saratov Oblast. There, she rose through the ranks to general counsel of the district’s trade department, before returning to Leningrad Oblast. In 1990, 15 years after graduation, in accordance with Soviet laws, she was selected as a judge at the Regional People’s Court of the Citizens of the City of Luga.

To be clear, in those times the position of judge at the border of Novgorod Oblast was nothing to envy and at the least promised less comfort and fortune than work in the Soviet trade system, even in the Saratov backwaters. This move was likely related to her marriage and the birth of her son, but for now we can only speculate.

The propaganda posters for Judge Podnosova’s election in 1990 — purely a formality after the Leningrad Regional Committee of the CPSU approved her nomination — undoubtedly told more about the candidate.

But then again, until 2018, or even until 2020, Podnosova’s judicial career appeared to be standard. She worked away as an ordinary judge for 13 years, and then as the chief justice of the Luga City Court for another 10, from 2003 to 2013. In 2013, she became deputy chief justice of the Leningrad Regional Court and moved to St. Petersburg, and in 2017, after a series of resignations, she was appointed the Court’s chief justice. She ran to become a member of the Russian Council of Judges, but there’s nothing unusual there, either.

What is unusual is the absence of reference numbers in public sources for the presidential decrees related to Podnosova’s appointments to positions after 2013. The Russian Supreme Court’s website doesn’t even list exact dates for her changes in position from chief justice of the oblast’s court to higher positions, just the years.

Information about her marital status is missing, too.

Colleagues in St. Petersburg found information about Podnosova’s son, Egor, who, until his mother was appointed deputy chief justice of the Supreme Court, was a lawyer at a firm called EPAM (Egorov, Puginsky, Afansiev, and Partners). This is a very reputable firm, started by another classmate of Putin and Podnosova in 1993 in St. Petersburg. The firm has branches in the capital as well as in other countries, including the United Arab Emirates, and it supports large international commercial transactions.

Nikolai Egorov and Boris Puginsky, lecturers and later professors in the law department at St. Petersburg State University, also supported the city mayor’s office during Putin’s tenure under Anatoly Sobchak, but at that time Podnosova’s son was still quite young and was living with his mother in Luga.

Some fellow journalists (whom we won’t name so as not to give them any of the ‘publicity’ that was inarticulately banned in one of the latest laws) were able to find out Podnosova’s maiden name. By comparing first names and patronymics with Leningrad State University course listings, they determined the name Putin probably knew her by until 2018-2020: Luneva.

So this background information probably disappeared from public sources and into thin air no earlier than 2018, and before then no one could have been interested.

But why should we speculate or be obliged to ‘seek out’ this data?

We’re not the secret service, and the role of chief justice of the Supreme Court should, in theory, be a very public one. ‘Don’t count out a prison cell,” especially in Russia. And we citizens have a right to know more. But it is what it is.

Around 2015, when I was a member of the Presidential Human Rights Council, the former head of the Council, Mikhail Fedotov, and I met with the presidents of both the city and regional courts during a retreat in St Petersburg, and the conversation was about expanding contacts between civil society and the judicial community. I remember it for the good will shown (something generally characteristic of St. Petersburg judges until recently), but, alas, not for its results.

Up until 2018, Putin, unless he was treating Podnosova as an ‘undercover agent’ (just kidding), clearly did not often remember his classmate – at least it did not affect her career which was far from showing a rapid rise, contrary to the opposition media’s claims.

TV journalists, whose work, alas, we cannot ‘advertise’ either, somewhere dug up a video from the Navy Day parade, which was held in St. Petersburg on the last Sunday of July 2018. The footage shows Podnosova freely, though somewhat hurriedly and unexpectedly, approaching Putin, who is walking along the Neva embankment near the Admiralty, accompanied by Defence Minister Shoigu, St Petersburg Governor Beglov and others.

During their studies at the law faculty, according to other classmates, Putin and Luneva were not particularly close. But the chair of the Regional Court, who was probably invited to the celebration ex officio and was walking in the park near the monument to Peter during the parade, did not have to break through any cordon. Addressing a fellow student is not beyond university traditions. True, it was clearly out of place and out of time. The conversation itself took no more than five seconds – during this time, before turning away and moving on, the president could say, for example: “Ir, let’s do this later…” (with a bit of savvy, our readers can watch and rate this footage themselves).

In September of the same year, 2018, Podnosova moved up a notch – to the position of chair of the Second Court of Appeal of General Jurisdiction, also stationed in St. Petersburg. But it takes longer to prepare such presidential decrees than a couple of months, and in the seconds of the conversation on the embankment Podnosova could at most thank ‘Volodya’ in advance for the trust shown in her.

The real surprise in her career came in July 2020, when Podnosova appeared in the Supreme Court as Vyacheslav Lebedev’s deputy and chair of one of the Supreme Court’s collegia – not in criminal cases (which she had been hearing for most of her career) and not even in general civil cases, but in economic disputes.

The former chair of this panel, Oleg Sviridenko, left his post not without questions from the HJQB. According to the ‘sources’ that Novaya gazeta had in the Supreme Court at the time, Lebedev first hoped to see another judge who was better known and more closely associated with him in the vacated position. Serving on the economic collegium, which regularly receives complaints against arbitration court rulings on billion-dollar deals, can be compared to the work of clearing minefields, and in Podnosova’s case, with no particular field experience.

Podnosova would certainly not have risked agreeing to this appointment, crossing the path of her colleagues on the Supreme Court, without the support and firm promises of her classmate.

The first of April session of the HJQB, which recommended Podnosova for the top post, lasted 10 minutes – there were no other applicants (those ‘seeking suicide’). The head of the economic collegium said that in three and a half years she had personally examined more than 11,000 complaints, not counting her participation in the preparation for the Plenums of the Supreme Court and the development of draft laws. If these figures represent something more than pure formalities, they give us some idea of how deeply the Supreme Court gets acquainted with case files: 3,000 complaints (the most complicated in this collegium) per year per judge, even with assistants.

Vyacheslav Lebedev (may he rest in peace) was understandably wary of his new deputy, as were probably other colleagues. But her status as a classmate of the president served as a recommendation not to be gainsaid. Other judges are unlikely to share personnel secrets that play an important role in the internal intrigues of the judicial community with her, but Podnosova could now obtain such information from other sources.

So the main questions are not for the future president of the Supreme Court, but rather for her classmate. Why did he suddenly remember her? Putin’s personnel decisions always have a clear, though sometimes unexpected, logic behind them. Obviously, when promoting his classmate as deputy chair of the Russian Supreme Court, he had in mind a replacement for the 80-year-old Lebedev as early as 2020, but – as an option.

It is most likely that in the end Putin preferred Podnosova as a figure with less authority within the judicial system than Lebedev or other, more well-known deputies, but one who was ‘equidistant’ from all the various elements of Putin’s ‘entourage’: this will allow the president to play more successfully on the contradictions between them.

Could Podnosova’s appointment result in any changes in the positions taken by the Supreme Court and in the practices of the judicial system as a whole? It is not very likely, but not impossible. The role of the law enforcement agencies, with whom the late Lebedev was very closely associated during his thirty-five years in office, has recently increased significantly in connection with the Special Military Operation and the intensification of repression against the opposition. Podnosova, at least in significant cases, will hardly dare to be pressed by The heads of the law enforcement agencies will probably not date to put pressure on Podnosova, at least not in significant cases: her support by the president guarantees her a certain independence from them. But the new chair will need to be on the alert at all times.

At the same time, we shall have to wait and see who will head the Supreme Court’s collegium on economic disputes after Podnosova. Today, when the process of renationalisation of largescale property, including industrial property, is gaining momentum, the Kremlin needs to control the arbitration courts very tightly, all the more so since the legality of the prosecutor’s office’s demands, which, 30 years on, are being used to invalidate transactions made in the ‘dashing 90s’, raises serious questions in law.

Translated by Nina dePalma and Simon Cosgrove